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Free Will or Not

by David De La Torre

In an essay titled Neurons v free will in Intelligent Life magazine, author Anthony Gottlieb grapples with the modern notion that the more we know how the brain works, the less room there is for a sovereign, rational self. Through modern science, we are able to peek inside live human brains. Such research has led neuroscientists to believe they can find the specific place in the brain where moral responsibility and love rest. Gottlieb argues that although our mental lives depend on our brain, that doesn’t imply that our behavior can be explained by looking inside the brain.

On the evening of October 10th 1769, in one of his typically curt dismissals of a philosophical problem, Dr Johnson silenced Boswell, who wanted to talk about fate and free will, by exclaiming: “Sir…we know our will is free, and there’s an end on’t.” Nearly two and a half centuries later, free will and responsibility are debated as much as ever, and the issue is taking some new twists.

Every age finds a fresh reason to doubt the reality of human freedom. The ancient Greeks worried about Ananke, the primeval force of necessity or compulsion, and her children, the Fates, who steered human lives. Some scientifically minded Greeks, such as Leucippus in the fifth century BC, regarded the motion of atoms as controlled by Ananke, so that “everything happens…by necessity.” Medieval theologians developed a different worry: they struggled to reconcile human freedom with God’s presumed foreknowledge of all actions. And in the wake of the scientific revolution of the 17th century, philosophers grappled with the notion of a universe that was subject to invariable laws of nature. This spectre of “determinism” was a reprise of the old Greek worry about necessity, only this time with experimental and mathematical evidence to back it up.

In the 20th century, the new science of psychology also seemed to undermine the idea of free will: Freud’s theory of unconscious drives suggested that the causes of some of our actions are not what we think they are. And then along came neuroscience, which is often thought to paint an even bleaker picture. [more]